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Immigration: What Barbara Jordan Could Teach Donald Trump

In this July 10, 2015 photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles as he leaves after speaking at a news conference about immigration, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
In this July 10, 2015 photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles as he leaves after speaking at a news conference about immigration, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

I recently found the first Donald Trump supporter among my acquaintances. She said Trump isn’t a bigot; drug-dealing Mexican immigrants really are the source of our addiction scourge. I pointed out that immigrants commit fewer violent crimes than native-born Americans and that our appetite for drugs also shoulders blame for addiction. An immigrant herself, my acquaintance has no problem with foreigners coming here legally; it’s those who sneak in that Trump is targeting, and about whom Barack Obama is indifferent, she alleged.

I noted the president actually has been vigorous against illegal entries. When she interjected, “And he’s a Muslim,” I realized she’d gone full moon on me and gave up.

Which prompts this plaintive prayer: Where have you gone, Barbara Jordan?

We know, in short, that Trump could have chosen a more intelligent, less xenophobic vocabulary to discuss immigration by following Jordan’s cue.

To the beyond, sadly. The late Democratic congresswoman, who rose to prominence in the 1970s as a member of the committee investigating Watergate, was a reliable liberal; as a black woman, she knew what it was like to be part of a marginalized population. In the 1990s, she led an immigration reform commission that recommended a reduction in legal entry quotas and tighter border controls. Given Trump’s concerns about immigrants, he and Jordan might have shared a common frame of reference. He certainly could have learned from her model of reasoned, respectful thinking on this combustible issue.

Like Jordan — a Boston University-trained lawyer who carried a copy of the Constitution in her purse — and like President Obama, I believe immigration limits should be enforced. It demonstrates that we are a nation of laws and that we will be fair to immigrants who play by the rules and wait in line legally. (My Trump-touting acquaintance stressed that latter point, though as a white woman recycling myths about a president and immigrants of color, I suspect she’s unconsciously anxious over a country that’s shedding its white-majority status. There’s ample research suggesting other whites are discomforted.) Liberals who damn Obama’s deportations may sound as if they’re indifferent about the law to people like my acquaintance.

But beyond border enforcement, Jordan’s commission unsuccessfully advocated a one-third cut in legal immigrants. It must be said that commissioners (and Trump voters) labored under the misimpression that immigrants “steal” jobs from native-born Americans. The concern makes superficial sense; there are only so many jobs to go around, right? But today, most economists agree that’s not true. As a New York Times article put it, “Immigrants don’t just increase the supply of labor …  they simultaneously increase demand for it, using the wages they earn to rent apartments, eat food, get haircuts, buy cellphones. That means there are more jobs building apartments, selling food, giving haircuts and dispatching the trucks that move those phones.”

Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Tex., is pictured in Washington on Thursday, July 25, 1974. (AP)
Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Tex., is pictured in Washington on Thursday, July 25, 1974. (AP)

A study of the 1980 Mariel boatlift of Cubans to the U.S. corroborated that insight, The Times said. While 45,000 working-age Cubans flooded Miami, raising the labor supply 7 percent, there was no significant decline in wages or employment. The logic of the research, The Times writer argued, suggests that we could raise, dramatically, the roughly half a million immigrant visas we grant each year, perhaps in steps to gauge the effects and be sure we weren’t losing jobs.

Given all the benefits of immigration, the writer’s suggestion seems sensible to me. Who knows whether Jordan, who died in 1996, would have agreed? But we do know a few things. She opposed denying automatic citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, declaring, “To deny birthright citizenship would derail this engine of American liberty.”

To deny birthright citizenship would derail this engine of American liberty.

Barbara Jordan

So far as I know, she didn’t advocate walling off the border with Mexico, nor did she fantasize that we could persuade that nation to bankroll such a project. She didn’t slander immigrants of any nationality as “rapists.” It’s impossible to imagine her criticizing an American-born judge as biased against her based solely on his Mexican ancestry, as Trump did with the jurist presiding over the fraud case against Trump University. Of course, having never demonized a group of immigrants, Jordan wouldn’t have had to worry about such bias in the first place.

We know, in short, that Trump could have chosen a more intelligent, less xenophobic vocabulary to discuss immigration by following Jordan’s cue. But we also know that wasn’t in the cards; Jordan venerated the law, while Trump has skirted incitement-to-violence charges because of his tumultuous rallies. You have to wonder whether The Donald someday might be the object of the question, “Will the defendant please rise?” That’s his biggest difference with Jordan.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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